Mekong River-region countries called Thursday for ministerial-level discussions on the proposed Don Sahong dam in Laos after officials disagreed over whether the country should be required to consult its neighbors before moving ahead with the controversial project.
Representatives to the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—the intergovernmental body responsible for coordinating use of the waterway’s resources by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—made the decision to elevate the level of their discussions during the group’s first talks on the 260-megawatt hydropower project.
During the meeting, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam raised concerns about Don Sahong’s impacts downstream, insisting the project be put through a formal consultation and technical assessment, according to a statement issued after the meeting.
Laos, however, maintained that the project should go through MRC procedures that only require it to provide neighbors information about the project, the statement said.
The dam is to be built across the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel about one mile (2 kilometers) north of the Cambodian border in the Siphandone area where the Mekong splits into multiple braided channels.
A key point of the disagreement revolves around whether the dam will block fish migration routes, with neighboring countries saying that damming the Hou Sahong will have a greater impact than Laos has acknowledged.
“We view that the project documents are incomplete and the studies do not cover transboundary issues in countries such as Cambodia,” said Te Navuth, head of Cambodia’s MRC delegation, according to the statement.
“If the alternative routes [for fish migration] don’t function well, the dam will have impacts on food security and nutrition on Cambodia.”
Laos maintains the channels adjacent to the Hou Sahong can be used as alternative fish migration routes.
“The Hou Sahong has been a key migratory route in the dry season, but the fact is that there are several channels that support fish migration in the wet season and research indicates that other channels can be modified to improve migration in both directions all year round,” head of the Lao delegation Daovong Phonekeo said.
Using the procedures for notification instead of consultation, Laos formally announced its plans for the dam to the MRC in September, saying it expects to begin construction in November and complete it in 2018.
Call for further study
Global green group International Rivers has called the dam a “ticking time bomb” for Mekong fish, saying it poses a regional security threat for the some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the river for their nutrition and their livelihoods.
Vietam argued that the impact of the project on fisheries would be significant.
“It is not possible to replace the modified channels for upstream fish migration with the existing Hou Sahong,” the head of Vietnam’s delegation to the MRC Le Duc Trung said.
“Further study on social impacts from loss of fisheries should be conducted.”
The 'battery' of Southeast Asia
Laos, which aims to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling hydropower electricity to its neighbors, is also in the process of building the Xayaburi dam, the first dam across the main stem of the Lower Mekong.
It insists, however, that the Don Sahong is not a mainstream dam, saying it will use only 15 percent of Mekong flows.
Under MRC rules, member countries are required to engage in “notification” procedures for year-round intrabasin water-use projects and interbasin diversion projects on the Mekong’s tributaries, and for wet-season water use on the mainstream.
“Prior consultation” procedures—the ones Laos’s neighbors are calling for—apply to proposed water use projects on the mainstream in the dry season, diversion of water from the mainstream to other basins during the wet season, and diversion of surplus water to other basins in the dry season.
A third set of rules known as “specific agreement” procedures are required projects diverting water from the mainstream to other basins in the dry season.
International donors to the MRC including Australia, the EU, Japan, and the U.S. have called on Vientiane to hold interregional discussions before the project can proceed.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.